Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 24, 2021
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Sentinels of the sea

Sentinels of the sea

Imagine it's the tail end of the 19th century and you are sailing to America's southern states. Now near their Atlantic coast, your ship is taking a beating from currents and violent storms. Just when you think you've spied a strip of dunes and beaches through the driving rain, something unexpected looms into view. Slim, stark and incredibly tall, it burns like a needle of light piercing the gloom. As the fog shifts, there is a tower cloaked in black and white swirls and capped by a huge lamp which flashes across the water. Suddenly, you realize you're staring at the Cape Hatteras Light, the largest lighthouse in the US and the pride of North Carolina's Outer Banks, the islands that shield the continent's coast.

But your awed realization is also one of enormous relief. This lighthouse is a beacon of notorious disaster: ship after ship has foundered in the sands of the region's uncharted shoals. In fact, some 2300 vessels line the ocean floor off the Outer Banks -- the greatest toll of shipwrecks anywhere in the Earth's deeps. Mariners have called these seas the "Graveyard of the Atlantic" since the earliest days of 15th century European exploration.

North Carolina's Outer Banks are a thin strand of constantly eroding barrier islands which curve out to sea and back again in a drifting emaciated line. Immense sand spits, they begin at the state's northern border with Virginia and reach down the coast like a giant arm crooking an elbow around the mainland. The islands of Bodie, Hatteras and Ocracoke have protected North Carolina's low shore for thousands of years, surviving ocean and sky in a place where the Labrador and Gulf Streams collide to create some of the most turbulent waters and winds on earth. While boats still are dashed against these shoals -- and it is still possible to stumble across old wrecks uncovered by storms on the islands' beaches -- these days you're more likely to spot throngs of Quebeckers windsurfing in Hatteras Island's Canadian Hole, an inlet with spectacular swells.

Modern times have slowly transformed this region of huddled fishing villages and maritime disasters into a year-round vacation spot, a destination offering some of the best golfing, fishing, water sports and nature-watching on the East Coast. And while celebrated for a fall storm season beloved by surfers, the Outer Banks in winter are sunny, warm and welcoming to the visitors who stroll the 480 kilometres of beaches, sand dunes and unique salt-stunted forests.

Although some of the island chain has been developed extensively, large parts have been set aside as the US Park Service's Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Opportunities for recreation abound, whether beachcombing, deep sea fishing, crabbing, canoeing, sailing, surfing or summertime swimming and snorkelling. Modern bridges and frequent ferries make the Outer Banks safely accessible.

The islands have remained unchanged for centuries. Home to inhabitants with a zest for place names like Nag's Head, Kill Devil Hills and Sticky Bottom, they've preserved traditions like the celebration of Old Christmas on January 6. An Elizabethan-era dialect persists to this day. In fact, the islands were the site of North America's first English settlement, the "lost colony" of Roanoke, which vanished mysteriously between supply runs in 1560. The islands were also the last lair of Blackbeard the Pirate and the place where the Wright Brothers' biplane proved that humans could fly.

Light fare
But visitors are most taken by the lighthouses, whose striking silhouettes soar above the low-lying islands at scattered intervals. Built to help ships negotiate the coast, today five majestic oceanside towers continue to operate, including the Cape Hatteras Light. Now fully automated, three of the towers are painted with the striking black-and-white patterns which make them some of the most distinctive, elegant structures on the Atlantic coast. Even far out to sea they're easily recognised -- Cape Hatteras has the candy-cane swirl, Bodie Island is encircled by bands and furthest to the south, just outside the Outer Banks proper, lonely Cape Lookout is festooned with a pattern of diamonds. These all date from the 19th century, but island lighthouses originated with the Shell Castle, a 15-metre wood pyre erected in 1704 off Ocracoke, its lamp fuelled with whale blubber. By the time the five sentinels were built, construction techniques had advanced considerably. Each tower was made from millions of bricks in a virtuoso display of the era's engineering ability, a magic act that has enabled them to stand solidly in the Outer Bank's soft sands ever since.

Or have they? The shape of the barrier islands is changed constantly by the eternal dance of sea, wind and sand, and the lighthouses are as subject to their whims as everything else. The Outer Banks, after all, are a place where storms send the ocean crashing through the islands to bulldoze bays on the inner harbour overnight. Locals claim to have found dolphins eating cabbages in their gardens after hurricanes. Inlets and land continue to trade places like magic even in calm weather. Many of the islands' original lighthouses became redundant when waves suddenly lapped at their stairs or a channel shifted, leaving the light high, dry and uselessly inland.

The Cape Hatteras Light has been abandoned and moved three times. Its present incarnation, dating from 1870, sits firmly on its period "floating foundations" (layers of timber crossed in a pit below the water table), but it was moved further inland in 1999 because of dangerous erosion. This Herculean labour involved cutting the lighthouse free of its original base, hydraulically lifting it onto steel beams and then transporting it along railway tracks a kilometre further from the pounding surf.

On the look out
Touring the Outer Banks lighthouses is an ideal way to see all the barrier islands. Currituck Beach is the northernmost light, closest to the Virginia border (highway US 158 southbound) and three hours by car on NC 64 east and 12 north from Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina's biggest city. Currituck was built to fill a 129-kilometre "dark spot" on the unspoiled and nameless end of what becomes Bodie Island and it remains unpainted to distinguish it from its siblings. Visitors are allowed to climb the spiralling interior stairs.


The sandbanks to the lighthouse's north contain some of the highest, restless dunes on the East Coast, forests filled with wild ponies and estuaries rich with pelicans. Although the area is still "outback," you'll have no problem finding shopping and fine dining too, as well as amenities and entertainment galore. The Inn at Corolla Light is a fabulous beachside resort which offers special rates throughout the year.

Heading south through the hamlet of Duck, appropriately filled with honking Canada geese, you waver past the 10-storey sand dune of Jockey's Ridge State Park to land at the Wright Brothers National Monument in Kitty Hawk. From there it's a leisurely ride past postcard-perfect beaches and many attractions (the restored Roanoke Island Colony, the ornate Elizabethan Gardens) to the southern tip of Bodie Island, where its striped lighthouse stands guard over vacation homes. Bodie Island was reputedly named for the numbers of bodies which drifted onto shore from shipwrecks; one example, the schooner Laura A. Barnes, now lies where a 1921 nor' easter deposited her in the lighthouse parking lot. Southern Bodie Island is today a series of busy beach communities with a multitude of restaurants (look for fresh marlin) and an endless variety of resorts, motels, B&Bs, campgrounds and seasonal cottages in which to stay.

South from Bodie lies the bridge to Hatteras Island, home of the National Seashore's hikes and water haunts, as well as the 268 steps that thread their way to the top of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, usually open year-round, but temporarily closed. Naval buffs should know that the waters offshore were the setting of World War II's Torpedo Junction, a killing zone in which Nazi submarines inflicted heavy losses on defenseless Allied merchant ships in 1942. On a lighter note, Hatteras Island has a wealth of accommodations and eateries for all tastes. Keep a lookout for locals with fishing gear stowed in mounts on the hoods of their vehicles that resemble the cowcatchers of locomotives -- they know where to catch the fish and they know where to eat it. Tuna, mahimahi, flounder, crab, shrimp, oysters and clams are all abundantly and deliciously available.

From Hatteras, Ocracoke Island is reached by a free 30-minute ferry that runs every half hour from April through early October and every hour otherwise. Reservations are nonexistent, so bring some vacationing goodwill and a book in the busy summer months. The serenely eccentric Ocracoke Island Inn is the best place to stay on the island. A few blocks away a boardwalk leads to the squat, unpainted Ocracoke Lighthouse, built in 1823 and now North Carolina's oldest continually operating light. The tower is closed to visitors, but take solace in the knowledge that this idyllic spot was the setting for Blackbeard the Pirate's bloody last stand.

South of Ocracoke lies the Cape Lookout National Seashore, a 88-kilometre strip of golden islands just beyond the Outer Banks that would probably claim to belong to them if anyone still lived there. There are no bridges, no highway, no potable water. Access is by private boat or small ferry services run by the Coast Guard. One place worth the effort is Portsmouth, a ghost town on the island of the same name that lingered on as Cape Lookout's last village until its demise in 1971. Again, you can only get there if you charter a boat. The same holds true for the diamond-patterned Cape Lookout Light, the loneliest of the five lighthouses. But those in the know maintain that Cape Lookout is their favourite, given over entirely to squawking seabirds, the sticky silence of the dunes and the whirring of its automated beacon.

The solitary lighthouse keeper of yesteryear -- who climbed the tower to clean the light's lenses and checked the lamp's whale oil fuel -- has passed into history. Yet the lighthouses remain on duty. Built to serve as functional warning devices but possessing an appeal that strikes a chord with seafarers and landlubbers alike, the Outer Bank's lighthouses will long continue to light up the night and hearts of visitors. Now, if only the wind, sand and sea would agree.


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